I had no expectations when I rolled into the capital city of Podgorica (pop. 150,000). I’d never read a word about the city. I wanted it to be modern, I wanted it to be unique and, more than anything, I wanted it to have a market for selling motorbikes.
It doesn’t really have one. It has a couple of potential methods, including listing the vehicle in the newspaper and talking to the folks at the motorcycle racing store. I’ll sell this thing for €300 if I have to, but I need to ditch it ASAP; I’m broke.
I had created an elaborate lie to tell a dealership about trucking the scooter here from London, with a girlfriend and a job at her parents’ company that didn’t work out – this seemed more plausible than telling them I had driven it from London. The fabricated story was useless once I learned there was no dealership to sell the bike to. I knew I would have to make and rely on new contacts to sell Olivia.
Podgorica’s Orthodox cathedral is taking too long to build, so say the town’s citizens. Founded in 1993, Christ’s Resurrection Church is
A Roma man unloads his scrap wagon in front of the Cathedral of Christ's Resurrection (Podgorica).
the city’s most formidable structure, and it looks nearly complete from the outside.
When I arrived, there was a scrappy brass band playing in the parking lot. I didn’t understand why at first. I’d arrived at 10 a.m. on a Sunday for what I expected to be their regular service. Soon, I realized that I had wandered through the new catacombs and construction mess to land in the middle of a wedding ceremony in Montenegro’s high society. Nobody said anything to me (not that I would have understood them anyway), as I quietly snuck back out behind the grey stone Roman columns that marked the entrance. Later, guests must have remarked about the uninvited American tourist who showed up to wedding wearing a T-shirt.
Outside the cathedral, I engaged the roaming band of brass musicians who kept trying to entertain guests as they walked into the wedding. They were dressed nicely in pseudo-professional uniforms. The band appeared to have been hired to welcome everyone, but now that the service had started inside, they had begun to lose purpose and began to head out. To my delight, they played a brief explosion of emotion for my camera just in
The Moraca River
The Moraca runs under the Millenium bridge, through the center of Podgorica.
front of the cathedral, creating brilliant footage. I thanked and tipped them for their effort.
When I didn’t hear from any Couchsurfing buddies, I wondered if my luck was finally beginning to run dry. I conceded the hostel, and found “Steve’s Place” just around the corner, a few meters past the nine-year-old smoking a cigarette outside the national soccer field. I knocked on the door, and my wonderful new friend Amy answered. Amy is from Seattle and her vigor for traveling puts me to shame. She lived with her parents and worked at Starbucks for a couple of years, saving her tip money so that she could take on the world. She’s been to almost every country in Northern, Central and Southern Europe by bus, train and hitchhiking in her 25 short years; I stand in awe.
When she showed me her pictures from Kosovo, they really told a sad story of destruction. When Amy crossed America in her car, she said she used to shower at truck stops and people would look at her funny. “Are you sure you really want to shower in there?” people would ask. She said they smelled like “dirty
old trucker,” which is a smell I never wanted to know, but discovered for myself years later in the Greyhound stations of the Northern plains states.
Birdshit, Records and Bombing Raids
I made an appointment to meet the executives at Goraton records, Montenegro’s only full-service record company. As I walked across the city to meet them, the sky turned cloudy. I was preparing to open my folding travel umbrella when a huge splat landed on my shoulder. It wasn’t rain. A filthy pigeon, perched atop the light post in a newly renovated part of the city had dropped a nasty bomb on my faux leather motorcycle coat. As surprising as it was, what happened next was an even more surprising demonstration of humanity. A modest grey car, which had been driving past me as I was hit by the bird, immediately pulled off to the side and parked. The driver got out, carrying a paper towel and hurried up to offer it to me. He quickly saw I was an American, and apologized for the careless birds of Montenegro. I was completely dumbfounded by the care and concern of this complete stranger. As quickly as he’d responded, he
then returned to his car and drove off. I was humiliated – not by having been shit on by the bird – but because I knew that if the roles were reversed, I would have simply pointed and laughed at the man being crapped on. I suppose we all have room for character growth.
When I reached Goraton, the executives were very excited about my music agency, and offered to help as much as they could. The label director, Ratko, didn’t speak much more than a few words in English, but his attorney, Janko is an expert. He effortlessly interpreted for me, and the three of us went out for lunch at a fine restaurant. They served me a plate with a variety of Montenegrin meats and vegetables. The mushroom steak with gravy was phenomenal.
Ratko is in the process of trying to fund two new films. One of them is about the US bombing of Podgorica in 1999 during the Lewinski “wag-the-dog” distraction; it was seen in exactly the same light here. The US only bombed the airport, and no one was killed. This happened during the bombing of Belgrade, and Podgorica was bombed because it was
the capital of Montenegro, which was in a union with Serbia at that time. It was shortly after this incident that Montenegro decided to split itself from the union and form its own state. Ratko wanted me to find money to make a film about the bombing, vilifying President Clinton. I’m sure I could find the money if I looked, if only from the very worst people in our country. Ironically, I would later discover that the Kosavans celebrate Clinton for this same act.
As a half-hearted public relations effort, partially to make up for the negative image of bombing their airport, America has built and sponsored a pro-American library/club called the American Corner
. The Department of State program has 400 propaganda units in 60 countries that mostly seem to hate us. The idea is that by providing a cool place for young people to hang out, with music and lectures and books, the youth will grow up hating America less. From my experience, the local population mostly ignores this waste of U.S. taxpayer money. Dust gathers on the furniture in this empty building, seeming vastly out of place, among the post-communist rubble. I wandered alone through the halls
of its shell, decorated with symbols of America on the walls. They celebrate jazz here, so much more than they do back at home. I washed my bike with paper towels from their bathroom, and used superglue to stabilize my flimsy side view mirror, in preparation of selling Olivia.
The View From Above
In the brilliant weather, I decided to go for a hike up to the top of the small hill behind Podgorica, which the city is named after. Podgorica translates to, “behind the small hill.” They changed the name to Podgorica from Titograd in 1992, after the breakup of Yugoslavia. I was hungry and, as a charity, bought some overpriced popcorn on the trail up from an impoverished-looking mother. As I walked and snacked up the inclined pathway, a man in his thirties matched pace with me. He said something in Montenegrin, and I told him I didn’t understand. He laughed and said he spoke English, and chatted with me to the top of the hill. Vladimir worked as a biologist, preserving natural spaces. We had a discussion about spiritual life, and the hollowness of the material world, on which we agreed.
From the apex
Haven't you ever seen a cow tied to a porch before?
of the hill, you could look across the entire region and see the whole of Podgorica. At the intersection of the two mighty rivers and the solid communist residences, the city is not unique, but it is striking nonetheless. The drabness of the cold, grey facades made me excited for Tirana, the capital of Albania, which is said to have bright, colorful buildings, if little else.
When you’re traveling with only wifi connectivity, sometimes there’s a mini-game you get to play in strange cities. It’s called “find the internet.” You sometimes end up scouring the streets of a foreign town, holding your expensive computer over your head in dangerous areas – while trying not to be seen. If that sounds nearly impossible, it can be. What you’re looking for is an unprotected connection to a router, from outside residential or commercial buildings. The most frustrating part is when you do connect to an unlocked signal, and it still doesn’t work. But success can be so-very-sweet; it can find you a bed, or get you fed.
Movie Stars and Escorts
After several nights, something miraculous happened. I’d been running dry on my trip funding, and
It looks like Slavko and Sandra want some alone time...
sent out an emergency Couchsurfing request to a man named Slavko.
He wrote me back and said though his place was being renovated, it might be possible for me to crash there anyway. It took me all of two seconds to respond, “I’ll take it!” Despite Amy’s fine company, the meager accommodations at Steve’s Place were costing a full €15/day, which is a lot of money in the Balkans.
Slavko met me at a nearby bar called the “Berlin Pub,” and he introduced me to two kind young ladyfriends of his, Sandra and Ivana. We spent the night laughing and drinking and dancing in English, Italian and Montenegrin. There exists somewhere a picture of me locked in an awkward kiss I really can’t recall.
Slavko’s place was barely appointed, but served my purpose of being a flophouse. Out in the driveway I parked my Vespa between Slavko’s two special edition Harley Davidsons and his Black Targa top Porsche Carrera. He had been an actor in the past, and now enjoyed a great level of popularity among a large circle of friends.
Slavko did his best to help find a buyer for my Vespa, but it was
At Karver Jazz and Books - the coolest spot in town!
determined that Montenegrin law was too difficult to dodge in registering a vehicle older than six years. However, he was able to connect me with his friend, a mechanic, who spent two hours replacing my damaged brake line to restore my stopping power. Very good people, but it became clear I would have to travel to Albania to make a clean sale on the Vespa.
Jazz and chicks
Performing at the Karver Jazz Club & Bookstore, located next to the Ribnica River and below a modest bridge, was my new friend Sanja, the spitting image of Mama Cass and her guitar accompanist. As I sat at a table listening for about two hours, they impressed me with a version of “Give me the Night” by borrowing an updated beat reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Working Day and Night.” After mixing a hard Montenegrin alcohol known as “Slivo” and energy drinks from a corner store, I started knocking things over and breaking bottles.
In my stupor, I noticed a very attractive wavy blond sitting with a group of friends at a nearby table. When a spot opened up, I decided to see if anyone there spoke English. They all
My friend Branka, at Karver Books
did, and were pleased to have me join them. Several of the ladies at the table worked at the bookstore. The blond, Branka, became my best friend in Podgorica. We chatted throughout the rest of the evening about culture, music, films and life. A tremendous fan of Fernando Torres and soccer in general, she planned to fly to Liverpool soon to watch a match – her dream come true.
As the night ended, I drove Branka home on the back of my Vespa, and walked to the foot of her concrete apartment’s wet doorstep. She turned her key, and opened the door.
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